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Toolbox: Retro kids tool sets

Toolbox: Retro kids tool sets

In the Make: Online Toolbox, we focus mainly on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange, or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, or refurbish.


Everyone has their first maker experience story. Mine was when I was five years old and I got a Handy Andy Tool Set for Christmas, exactly like the one pictured here. My mother walked into our kitchen and cried out in horror as she found me on the counter, using my tools to take apart the family toaster. That was transgressive enough, but the appliance was still plugged in! As the story goes, I had a hammer and screwdriver jammed down into the heating coils and was going to town.

I’ve always had a special misty-eyed fondness for that tool set (and my first Erector Set I got a few years later). Periodically, I go online and do a search on these sets and reminisce. Recently, I bumped into a blog post on Sir Richard’s Tool Kit. He got the same set that I did, also for Christmas, at five years old. His post concludes:

It was a great thing to have these at such a young age. I did a fair amount of harm to myself and the tools during the learning process, but it all worked out in the end. It was that introduction that gave me such a strong interest in tools and making things. Those are skills that have helped me to no end. And that makes me think of the quote by the great Red Green, “If they don’t find you handsome, a least they’ll find you handy.” Words to live by.

I can only hope that kids today, at least those with make-minded parents, will have similar fond feelings, looking back on their first Sparkle Labs or Gakken kits or whatever.

What are your kid tools remembrances and what was your first “maker experience?” Share your stories in the comments.

12 thoughts on “Toolbox: Retro kids tool sets

  1. RocketGuy says:

    I had a little saw in my toolkit, when I was about 4 years old.

    Living with the grandparents at the time, my grandmother had blithely allowed me to roam free with the saw into the basement. Later, it was discovered that I had managed to almost entirely saw through the primary support beam for the front of the house.

    Good times…

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      Ahahaha. And I thought my toaster “hack” was “exciting.” Good one, RocketGuy.

      I love how “Sir Richard” mentions doing a fair amount of harm to himself. Imagine that saw (which had pretty decent teeth), a real hammer, etc. being given to a 5 year old today. I cut myself, whacked my fingers with the hammer, nicked myself with the edges of the L-square ruler. It was all just part of growing up and learning. Today, every boo-boo would trigger a law suit.

      BTW: When my son was about ten, I looked all over to get him a similar tool set. It was hard to find one with real, decent tools. It wasn’t cheap and came in a cheesy plastic case. He barely ever touched it. Was already more interested in hacking the virtual world than the physical one. Still is.

      1. Simon says:

        The earliest memory of tinkering I have is taking apart an old telephone with a butter knife when I was very little.

        Another time I remember reasoning that if a little electric motor ran faster on 3 volts from two cells than 1.5 volts from one cell then it should run really, really fast on the 240 volts from the wall. So I wrapped the wires around the pins of a plug, plugged it and and flicked the switch. Needless to say – BANG! No more motor.

        As for kids tool kits I say make your own. I love putting together tool kits. Had great fun finding the perfect minimal set of tools to carry about in the boot, sorry trunk, of my MGB just recently. All the tools I need fit perfectly into an old ammo tin. And where possibly I found old, good tools from second hand shops.

        You could put together something similar for a kid I imagine.

  2. John V. says:

    I had that Handy Andy kit, too. Those were real tools! (Made for small hands, but real.) I’m pretty sure the screwdriver is still in my workshop somewhere today.

  3. craig says:

    From a wee tot, I knew that the tools in my Handy Andy tool set were a joke. Not REAL tools like my dad’s. Nonetheless, they were my first. I also knew from my first time playing with Legos, my ideas and projects were too grand for the quantity of bricks supplied. Therefore Legos were never that fun for me.

  4. migpics says:

    Can make do an article on the Butter Knife? It’s one of the most versatile tool yet. When I was a kid I used it to unscrew stuff, pry stuff open, open doors (instead of a credit card), digging, mixing, and with the blunt end, was rather harmless!
    It’s more versatile than a Thneed!

    (“A Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!
    It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove. It’s a hat.
    But it has OTHER uses. Yes, far beyond that.
    You can use it for carpets. For pillows! For sheets!
    Or curtains! Or covers for bicycle seats!- The Lorax, Doc Seuss.)

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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